Worlds of Design: Are You Consistent?

Like sports fans, RPGers want consistency of GMs rulings. This is both in the “meta” mode, what characters do aside from adventures, and adventures mode.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Success isn't always about greatness. It's about consistency. Consistent hard work leads to success. Greatness will come.”—Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock”)

Call It Consistently!​

Watching the NBA finals a few years ago, I often heard the plea of players and coaches—and spectators—that referees call the game consistently. Whether they call it tight or loose, call lots of fouls inside or outside, as long as the refs are consistent the players can adjust their play accordingly.

Thinking about some adventures I’ve experienced over the years, I realized that RPGers also want consistency of GMs rulings. This is both in the “meta” mode, what characters do aside from adventures, and the adventure mode.

Time​

One of inconsistency that bugs me is when a GM ordinarily gives players lots of time to consider what to do, but then at a stressful point goes into real-time and rushes everyone (introducing video-game-like time stress). To me this is a cheap GM trick; I figure I’m playing a game not really adventuring. (In real-world adventures, it is real-time.).

Believability vs. Boring​

Another consideration: the key to believability in games is consistency. In board games it's easier to maintain a baseline consistency on how the game world works, but RPGs take a lot more work. Some GMs care about believability, some don’t.

On the other hand, consistency in the kinds of things the players actually do, the kinds of challenges they meet (even storytelling is a challenge), is usually not desirable. No matter what it is, doing the same thing over and over and over can becomes tedious, whether it’s saving the world, or slaughtering orcs, or playing politics, etc.

Pacing Yourself​

Dramatic presentations of any kind require good pacing to stay “fresh.” A one-word description of good pacing might be “variability.” “Pacing” is an unfortunate choice of words, because it implies steady, measured endeavor (“walking with slow regular strides”), which is not desirable.

Good pacing is about more than three-act structure, though following a structure of that sort, or even the Hero’s Journey, necessarily varies the pacing of the event.

Consistent GM Styles​

Of the two extremes of GM style, “GM as arbiter” makes consistency easier, except that it subjects GMs to “rules lawyering." In other words, if the GM just interprets the rules (which must be quite detailed for this to work) and doesn’t make up new rules, then consistency is easier to achieve (assuming the game itself is consistent!). Detailed game rules actually help the GM be consistent, but they also require more GM time, attention, and sometimes more planning than if the game rules are less detailed.

“GM as god,” on the other hand, can easily lead to inconsistency. If the players are more invested in a storyline in which events happen to them (and they play along), they may find these inconsistencies less jarring as long as the end result is a good story.

RPGs Are Not Linear Entertainment​

When it comes to consistency, RPGs are more than simple entertainment, they're games too. Contrast the attitude with mass-market entertainment like television shows and movies. Consistency is often lacking in these mediums, in cartoons especially, and in TV writing in general. Writers think nothing of “cheating," of putting things into the program that couldn’t possibly be right in light of later “reveals." But most viewers don't care enough to hurt the show, if they notice at all. The same kind of thing happens in many genres of film, especially blockbuster adventures. Most of us end up spotting huge plot holes but agree to accept them and move on in order to enjoy the film.

Games are made of different stuff, and gamers expect consistency because they're not just passively watching, they're participating.

Your Turn: Is consistency an important part of your group’s play style?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Yora

Legend
The whole point of RPGs is that players try to figure out what's going on and make plans what things they need to do to get a desired outcome. You can't have things work one way in one moment, and a different way in another moment. If the rules keep changing, the players have no real agency to do anything.
 

I think consistency of applying and adjudicating rules as a DM in the general sense is important but doesn't need to be adhered to constantly. Running a city campaign, a dungeon delve, wilderness exploration or any other various type of adventure might require different rules or play styles be applied more consistently than others to make an adventure work. I think in those cases its more important to inform the players beforehand that adventure "x" over the next few sessions will concentrate on a certain theme and play style thus making consistency in the application of certain rules more necessary than others. This is a very crude example but say a DM is running an adventure of courtly intrigue at a noble gala and large dinner party, you wouldnt make players keep track of rations, but skill checks used when interacting with NPCs should be very consistent.
 

payn

Legend
It really depends on the style of game. I think games that try to have comprehensive rulesets that cover a myriad of situations and detailed tactical combat must have consistency to work as intended. In games that are more narrative driven, its less important because the fiction is contextual to the situation.
 


Celebrim

Legend
The whole point of RPGs is that players try to figure out what's going on and make plans what things they need to do to get a desired outcome. You can't have things work one way in one moment, and a different way in another moment. If the rules keep changing, the players have no real agency to do anything.

Rules not rulings.
 


Yora

Legend
It really depends on the style of game. I think games that try to have comprehensive rulesets that cover a myriad of situations and detailed tactical combat must have consistency to work as intended. In games that are more narrative driven, its less important because the fiction is contextual to the situation.
But the fiction has to remain consistent as well. NPCs can't change their motivations and goals without a reason in the fiction. The layout of locations has to remain the same unless something changed it in the fiction.
Deliberate inconsistencies in NPC behavior and environments still need a consistent reason. Player need to be able to notice and understand that something strange is going on that they can investigate, and that it's not the GM changing his mind all the time.
 

payn

Legend
But the fiction has to remain consistent as well. NPCs can't change their motivations and goals without a reason in the fiction. The layout of locations has to remain the same unless something changed it in the fiction.
Deliberate inconsistencies in NPC behavior and environments still need a consistent reason. Player need to be able to notice and understand that something strange is going on that they can investigate, and that it's not the GM changing his mind all the time.
Not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about PCs having playbooks and meta-currencies to take agency control. For example, a player might have a sharp/trick shooter mechanic that allows them to do something unusual with firearms. There is a reason why that character can do things that nobody else can. Things triggered by character mechanics and/or situational context. Things that, perhaps, not event he character with said mechanic can always rely on.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about PCs having playbooks and meta-currencies to take agency control. For example, a player might have a sharp/trick shooter mechanic that allows them to do something unusual with firearms. There is a reason why that character can do things that nobody else can. Things triggered by character mechanics and/or situational context. Things that, perhaps, not event he character with said mechanic can always rely on.
This is a key point, approached obliquely. :)

Consistency in DMing equates directly with reliability, both at the meta and in-play levels. Meta - reliably running a decent game (and showing up to do so!). In-play - things reliably work as they did last time, rulings are reliably adhered to later (i.e. they set precedent), and so forth. These are extremely important.

Consistency in-setting does not always equate to reliable, however; as something can be reliably inconsistent e.g. one's aim with a crossbow, or the in-setting weather. Sometimes the rules define the boundaries and-or frequency of these inconsistencies e.g. the to-hit roll when aiming a crossbow, other times it's up to the DM e.g. today's weather in Waterdeep*. This unreliability is also very important, as things not always working perfectly go a long way toward giving the setting life.

* - with things like this it's on the DM to provide some consistency/reliability to a point, e.g. if it's snowing in Waterdeep one day it probably shouldn't be 30 degrees C outside the day after; but it could easily be sunny and 7C.
 


MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I try to be consistent. If something isn't working well and I want to make a change to the rules, I discuss it with the players. We are all playing a game together and the rules are the common framework that allow us to do this. I lean on my players a lot in terms of rules, so it is less about ME being consistent as the DM, but more that we as a group are consistent.

That said, in terms of certain locations and monsters, some inconsistency can spice things up. Having creatures whose states are not expected or locations that have effects that you can't point specifically to any text in rule book to explain, it okay and keeps things interesting, but I try not to put too much cheese into the game our get lazy in making things challenging by changing how things work.
 


bloodtide

Adventurer
As a Godlike DM that does not care about Balance or Fairness, I also don't care about "consistency". Anything can happen in a game, and anything goes.

Roughly 99% of the time the players and characters both are clueless about things so it's beyond silly for them to complain about what they think "consistency" is.

And...well, Weather Wise....it depends where you live. For example where I am can and HAS gone from 65 F one day down to 20 F and snow the next day. Some crazy days we can even have all four seasons in one day....
 

Oofta

Legend
I try to keep my rulings and the world consistent. I also attempt to make what happens there believable within the context of that world and story. For the most part I stay within the rules. I explain any ruling or interpretation if I think they're controversial and we discuss new house rules as a group, although I do make the final call.

Players can have their PCs attempt anything but there are times when I'll just say no. In those cases I'll ask what they're trying to do and see if we can come up with an alternative that stays more or less within the lines, most of the time we can so it's "You can't do X but you can attempt Y". I do the same with NPCs and monsters, any rule or ruling that applies to PCs also apply to team bad guy.

I think it helps when the world the PCs adventure in is close to "reality + magic", it helps us envision and identify with things as if they were really happening and not just some dream reality. Unless of course they are actually in a dream reality and I want it to stand out that things have gone wacky. :)
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I think if you want intelligent and intelligible play, you have to be as consistent as you can be both about the fiction and about the rules. If your approach to the rules is changing, you can still have decent play emerge if those changes are player-facing--tell the players how your approach is changing.
 

I value consistency extremely highly. It is part of why I am so skeptical about alleged need for "DM empowerment" and the like. It consistently (heh) reads as reserving the right to be inconsistent whenever and wherever one wishes, for as long as one wishes, while rejecting any and all player criticism thereof (hence the repeated references to players "voting with their feet" if they're unhappy.) Amongst other issues, I mean. This is just the biggest one.
 


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